Eben: I am here

October 30, 2009

In Wolof, the first question asked when meeting or running into someone is “Nanga def?” which essentially translates to “How are you doing?”  The proper response is “Maangi fi,” or “I am here.”  This seems particularly appropriate given that I am, in fact, now here at my internship site, Ngaye Mekhe. After exchanging parting gifts with my family on Tuesday night — I gave them T-shirts, they gave me doughnuts and chocolate spread — I woke up the next morning at 5:30 to begin the next phase of my time here.  I hauled the entirety of my current belongings to school for our 7 am departure at 7:30 am. (This was still more on time than expected.)  After driving in our bus northeast for a few hours and dropping off Jasper and Lisa, we arrived in Mekhe around midday. Waly threw my bags at me off the top of the bus and left me at my family’s doorstep with a wave and a smile.  (Once again I find myself lying. We actually went to my internship site first to meet my supervisor and chat for a half hour or so about my work, and then I went to see where my friend Trina was staying before being left at my new house after a lengthy introduction from Waly.)

The family has been great. Unlike Trina’s new family and much of the rest of the town, they all speak very good French to complement their Wolof and Pulaar, another local language.  The father, Pa Diop, works for a local microfinance organization (different from mine), and the mother, Ma Sow, just opened a small boutique selling printed fabrics and assorted household items.  Pa Diop has a pretty sober demeanor and gives off a general vibe of seriousness, but after a couple days I would no longer describe him exclusively as such.  He’s very interested in my opinions on American and international politics and loves giving advice to his kids.  In news from the Irrelevant Details Bureau, he’s pretty short.  Ma Sow is not.  She’s unbelievably nice (to be fair, I believe it, but she’s nice nonetheless), and so she calls me “my son” and reminds me from time to time how happy she is that I’m here.  I now have a new Senegalese name, Yoro, which she chose for me within 20 minutes of my arrival.  (It’s a Peul name, since she comes from the Toucouleur ethnic group, which is part of the Peul tribe.)

Then the kids, of which there are nine as of my last count.  Some are children of Pa Diop and Ma Sow, while others are nieces and nephews here for unexplained reasons.  I repeatedly forgot all their names the first day, prompting me finally to pass around a notebook and make them write their names down after many jokes at my expense about my memory.  Save for the 5-year old, Adama, they all speak good French and love talking.  But although Adama is the only one I can’t really communicate with, he’s the one who likes having me there the most.  He ran in the door on the first day when he saw me sitting in front of the TV, and he tends to break into dance in front of me whenever any music is on.  I think he’ll be great for my nascent Wolof abilities, as he often tries to speak to me in Wolof and there are tons of natural translators around the house.  There’s a 19-year old, Demba, who is soft-spoken but quite smart and easy to talk to, and the one I talk to most is 10-year old Cheikh Tidiane, who has endless stories about the past Americans who have stayed with the family.

The house is roughly what I expected, with a few minor differences.  Like most houses here, it’s quite open-air, but most of the house is covered instead of being open to the sky.  The main area is defined by relatively dilapidated concrete flooring and walls, and it includes, of course, a TV set.  I have my own nicely-sized room directly off the main area, and otherwise inside on the first floor there is a boys’ room, a girls’ room, parents’ bedroom, and an unused living room.  (It all sounds bigger than it actually is.)  Then outside is a kitchen, a toilet hole, and a shower.  Finally, the roof is used as a petting zoo for the pet rabbits and pigeons.  The pigeons stay up there, but the rabbits love wandering around the house, often going into my room to hide under the bed.  The kids bring their mattresses up to sleep on the roof with the animals now that the rainy season is done.

I may have made the house sound somewhat simple, but the family is far from poor village folk or anything like that.  There are two computers in the house, one in the parents’ bedroom for Pa Diop to use the internet and the other in the boys’ bedroom for them to play computer games.  We get more TV channels than at my house in Dakar, since there is cable at this house.  And like the Mendy family, everyone speaks French, the parents are well-educated, and the kids aspire to go to college.

More so than the Mendy family, though, the Diops very much engage in the “typical” Senegalese manner of interpersonal interaction.  Every family member who enters the house shakes everyone’s hand upon arrival, so Pa Diop shakes his sons’ and daughters’ hands multiple times daily, which is pretty foreign to me.  A few minutes of every conversation are taken up by greetings, which usually consist of the same question asked multiple times by both parties, with full knowledge of the answer to come.  In French or Wolof:

“How’s it going?”
“It’s going, it’s going.  How’s it going for you?”
“It’s going well.  So how’s it going?”
“It’s going well, it’s going well.  How’s the heat?”
“Oh, it’s going a little, but it’s hot.”
“Yes, it’s always hot here.  And your day?”
“It’s going, it’s going.  Yours?”
“It’s going well.”

And so on, until perhaps you start talking about whatever it is that you wanted to talk about, or the conversation might be over after this exchange.  You are not, under any circumstances, allowed to answer these questions by indicating that something is not going. In another marked difference from the Catholic Mendy family, the Diops are strict adherents to Islam.  The house pauses to pull out prayer mats at the required times, and the family’s discourse is spattered with Arabic expressions.  Any future event is discussed under the premise that it will happen if God wills it, e.g., “See you tomorrow, insha’Allah,” or “God willing.” And if something is “going,” it is thanks to God, e.g., “It’s going, alhamdoullilahi.”  I guess I should really attribute this to simply being a manner of speech more so than indicating religious adherence, since even the lax Muslims use these expressions.  But it’s clear that it does have something to do with religion, since the Mendys only very rarely wove the expressions into their speech.

Finally, unlike at my last house, all meals are eaten around communal bowls.  I generally get put with Pa Diop, Adama, and the 10-year old girl, Boudy, who seems perhaps to be closest to Pa Diop among the kids.  We eat lunch at a table and dinner on the floor, all with spoons instead of our hands.  The rest of the kids, Ma Sow, and the maid eat together on the floor around a bigger bowl.

Now to the town itself.  The first word I used to describe Dakar upon my arrival was different; the first word I would use to describe Mekhe is desert. It’s a pretty large town, probably at least three miles wide, but aside from the two main roads it’s all sand.  This is not like the dirt on many Dakar roads; it’s deep sand like you would find at a beach.  Predictably, it is scorching hot; the high today is 98 degrees, and tomorrow’s is 102, which is about 10 degrees hotter than Thies, a city only 30 minutes south of Mekhe.  There’s a stiff breeze today, and so walking down the roads with sun and sand kicking into your face is a relatively blinding endeavor.

The townspeople have all been nice, and the local kids are very excited at the arrival of a toubab.  They often follow me and try to talk to me in Wolof.  There’s a nice big market in the center of town, and Mekhe is also renowned for its leather shoemakers, who make sandals to be shipped all over the world.

Finally, the internship.  My supervisor, Khadi, is a very nice woman who has in mind a project for me to write a report on the general impacts of the local people’s access to loans and savings accounts.  So I’ve written a questionnaire, and starting next week I’ll be going around with the credit agents to administer it to the women in the surrounding villages.  The organization gives out both group and individual loans, mostly to women, although there are some men in their clientele.  The group loans require no collateral, since doing it in a group essentially entails every member cosigning for the others.  Individual loans usually do require collateral in the form of property (e.g., land or furniture).  All loans require savings on the part of the client — initially, 10% of the total loan amount in the case of groups, and 25% for individuals, and further installments are made with every monthly loan repayment.  This serves as insurance in the case of default, and it is also meant to eventually allow the client to have enough savings so as to no longer need to borrow.  But it also likely excludes the poorest local residents from borrowing, as they might not have enough money to save the required amount to secure a loan.  That required savings cannot be touched by the client until a few months after the loan is repayed, and if a new one is taken out then they build on top of what they have in that account (and once again can’t touch the money).  There are also normal savings accounts available.  Interest for the loans runs at a pretty hefty 15% yearly, while the savings accounts return 2% interest yearly to the clients.

I’ll hopefully have more to report about the work being done here once I get to start visiting the local women and talking to them (or talking through an interpreter to them, for the ones who only speak Wolof).  Khadi was a little distressed that the scope of FDEA’s operations aren’t bigger, but they do seem to be doing very good work.  They have tens of thousands of loan recipients throughout Senegal, and instead of being donor-driven, they finance their operations through investors and break even despite the high rates of default.  And even if the loans aren’t going to the poorest of the poor, the loan amounts are certainly small change by the standards of normal bank loans.  A normal first loan for an individual, for example, runs around $100 to be repaid over the course of a few months.  The loans can get into the range of a couple thousand dollars, but only for clients or groups who have taken out multiple loans.   Those are repaid over the course of a couple years.

And the building is quite nice, albeit small.  I’m currently sitting in the room of a credit agent who’s on vacation, using his internet.  There are only four other employees here, plus the driver who hangs out until someone needs to go somewhere and the guard who makes me tea every afternoon.  So most of the operations are done in the field, which is where I’ll be for the majority of my time.

More, obviously, to come soon.

(New pictures from last weeks in Dakar are now up.)

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